Expect to see plenty of electric cars on the roads in Olympia, Wash., this morning. Tesla supporters are gathering at the state Capitol to rally against legislation that would prevent the electric-car manufacturer from opening additional stores or service centers in Washington state.
The proposed restrictions, first reported by GeekWire last week, have been criticized by Tesla as an effort by the Washington State Auto Dealers Association to keep the company from expanding in the state. Campaign finance records show that the primary sponsors of the House and Senate bills, Rep. Steve Kirby and Sen. Mike Hewitt, each received $1,800 in campaign contributions from the auto dealers during the 2012 election cycle, the maximum allowed per election.
Kirby and Hewitt have not responded to messages left by GeekWire at their offices, and a staffer at the Auto Dealers Association said last week that no one was available to discuss the issue.
The auto dealers association made a wide variety of contributions to candidates in Washington state during the recent election cycle, including $1,800 to now-Gov. Jay Inslee, and $3,600 to Rob McKenna (across the primary and general election), the incumbent who lost to Inslee in that election.
The bills now under consideration include numerous provisions beyond the section that would restrict the Tesla stores. The legislation primarily focuses on auto dealers’ relationships with the manufacturers whose cars they sell.
The basis for the proposed restriction is the fact that Tesla sells directly to consumers, rather than working through licensed dealers. The original intent of these types of regulations was to prevent auto manufacturers from competing with their own licensed dealers, but Tesla isn’t competing with its own licensed dealers when it opens its own stores, because it doesn’t have its own licensed dealers.
Tesla also has its supporters in the state Legislature: “Tesla’s embrace of a direct, open competition sales approach is exactly what we say we want from old style, traditional industries to survive—innovation, creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, who chairs the state’s finance committee, in a statement last week.
He added, “The ridiculous notion that the political process in the Legislature should intervene in the marketplace of ideas in the automobile industry to prevent Tesla from direct sales is patronizing at best, and many of us are committed to defeating this special interest legislation.”
Tesla, which has current locations in Seattle and Bellevue, is fighting similar battles in other states around the country, but the stakes in Washington are especially high: Washington was the top state in the country for Tesla sales last year, measured as a proportion of overall new vehicle registrations in the state, according to data from auto researcher Hedges & Co., cited by Bloomberg Businessweek.
The size of Tesla’s existing customer base here could help the company fight the bills. The online Tesla Motors Club is promoting the rally this morning at 10:30 a.m. at the Capitol, and encouraging Tesla supporters to contact the governor and legislators to oppose the bills.